The Gesture of Listening to Music

Donenico Ghirlandaio, The Annunciation

A gesture, as Flusser defines it, is “a movement of the body or of a tool attached with the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.”  It seems a quiet, unassuming definition.  But it becomes the foundation of a comprehensive theory of human communication, with specific gestures for speaking, writing, photographing, and many more.  Listening to music differs from the others in not being active, but rather passive.  He argues that this is exactly what distinguishes it from other – expressive – gestures.

In Renaissance painting, Mary holds herself, leaning toward the sound of the Word, suggests what he wants to say about music. Music, he says – and he speculates that the Word in this case may have been a song — doesn’t demand a specific, identifiable gesture, but rather asks any listener to adapt his body to take in the sound.  The gesture will look different, that is, depending on who is listening and what kind of music is being heard.  The absence of any other expressive movement is what singles this specific gesture out, in other words.  It implies that people who “use” music as the background to other things they are doing, e.g. driving or cleaning or – impossible for me, but many do – writing and record-keeping —  are not actually listening at all.   

It implies that real listening quite a difficult thing to do. I feel fairly sure it’s quite a rarity, for that reason. Flusser’s description underscores the intentional dimension of the gesture, as well as its submissive posture. Listening becomes a kind of intentional submission — not a bad definition of prayer.

 

Krapp’s Last Tape

Philip Robinson played Krapp in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape, last night in Ashburton, Devon, in a friend’s living room.  It was”right”.  Everyone — 20 of us — could really see and hear, notice the ticking clock at otherwise silent moments, empathise with the technological frustrations, and the technological authority.   As Philip later put it, we were “complicit”.  

The tape recorder pins the script to a particular moment in the 1950s — 1958 was the date of the first performance.  But it’s set in the future, probably the 1970s. The record a person may keep of her past is, by tradition, written; to hear one’s own voice is something completely different.  Does the voice have stronger presence, more authority, more presence?  It lets us, the audience in…

Our Parents’ Dreams

Piano Lesson Mihály Munkácsy, Oil on panel, c. 1900.

“We must awaken from our parents’ dreams” is the way I remember the passage from Benjamin, from the Arcades Project. It’s not exactly right. A related one, “Each epoch dreams the one that follows” covers some of the same ground. But I think my mother dreamed of her daughter playing the piano. The dream was visual, not acoustic.

I didn’t dream it. I analyzed, memorised, practiced, sorted out fingering and fought the gnawing suspicion that no one was listening. Even now I don’t think anyone was listening. Maybe Dad, occasionally. Mother was looking. The image reproduced here could be mother’s dream, an image I could never have seen when I was seven or eight. Now I can.

“Torn halves…”

Theodor Adorno’s often-quoted phrase about “torn halves of an integral freedom” appears in a letter to Walter Benjamin (1936). There, it refers to film. Adorno is best-known for his writing about music, a field in which he sees a chasm between products of the “culture industry,” (his term) and, broadly, popular music, and New Music, beginning with the Second Vienna School), Schönberg, Berg, Webern. And the famous phrase applies as if it were made for the purpose — which it probably was: they are “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up.”

I feel the division…and perhaps have for a very long time. There is “classical” music and “popular” music, and they are very different. But is it really always obvious which is which? Is one hard, the other easy, one satisfying, the other not? Is there ever a possility of reconciliation?